SF Sketchfest is a remarkable phenomenon. Started as a vehicle for a handful of local sketch comedy troupes to package gigs together, it has grown into an immense annual event. Now in its twelfth year, it boasts a truly exhausting lineup of comedic talent in a whopping 166 shows at venues all over San Francisco over the course of three and a half weeks. Seriously, if I were to list just the big names involved, from Drew Carey to Kevin Smith, that would take up all available space in this post.
The fest kicked off last Thursday at the Castro Theatre with RiffTrax Presents: Night of the Shorts IV: Riffizens on Patrol. RiffTrax is the gang from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 -- Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett -- still heckling movies, but without robot puppets and with more contemporary flicks in the mix. The array of short educational films they lined up to mock, however, ranged from the 1970s way back to the 1930s.
The subjects included kids doing interpretive movement based on toasters and washing machines, learning the unintentionally suggestive Heimlich maneuver, teaching kids not to be jerks by putting them in clown makeup, helping 1940s housewives learn cooking terminology so they won't be flummoxed by recipes, making art with toilet-paper tubes, and the dangers of hand-washing your clothes in gasoline in your home as opposed to taking them to a reputable dry cleaner. Also included was one film that was pretty clearly meant to be funny, not instructive, but in that dry '70s style that's easily mistaken for earnestness. Welcome Back, Norman chronicles a groaning sad sack's struggle to get out of a crowded airport parking lot.
The RiffTrax gang had a lot of guest commentators who joined them one at a time (except Sketchfest cofounders Cole Stratton and Janet Varney, who went up as a duo). Among the riffers were Kevin McDonald of Kids in the Hall, Adam Savage of Mythbusters, Paul F. Tompkins of Mr. Show, and Kristen Schaal of 30 Rock.
The shorts were well chosen in that they were pretty ludicrous on their own, with or without commentary. The pre-scripted wisecracks were hit-or-miss, but they did what they were supposed to do: the lame ones blended into the background while the zingers accentuated the hilarity of the films themselves. Running gags were often the best: the existential ruminations of the sad clown on the playground, the litany of things exploding in the dry-cleaning propaganda film. "My house! My mountain!"